King’s Field

King_s_Field
Would you look at that, mates, an ancient evil has awakened and it’s no less than a game from a day and age before most of you were probably born. So for this post, we’ll do something different: Today, let’s enter a dungeon!

Released only in Japan in 1994 as one of the first (if not the first) 3D RPGs on Sony’s PlayStation, King’s Field would mark the first title in a series of somewhat obscure darker first-person RPGs, later known a bit more for being the spiritual predecessor to FROM Software’s game-changing Demon’s Souls as well as their first game in general. The game takes place in the small country of Verdite, once said to have been saved by the Dragon of the Forest in an ancient battle. With the sanctuary built to honor the dragon changed into a royal graveyard, evil rises once again. Following your father into the battlefield against the power of darkness, you play as Jean Alfred Forester, distant relative to the throne and to thwart impeding doom.

But let’s stop that right now. Not that anyone really cares. Since hey, you’re here to play a game. And that’s what King’s Field is about and understands. No cutscenes for you, just gameplay. You’re here for that minimalistic experience. At least I was. And so, armed with a PS Vita, clearly too lacking knowledge of the Japanese language, varying pens & sheets of paper, a smartphone for kanji recognition and dictionary purposes as well as a mighty helpful sempai, I threw myself at King’s Field.

King's Field Skeleton

First of all, if you’re here naively assuming that you will like King’s Field for its combat since it’s made by the company behind the Souls franchise, you couldn’t be more wrong. Sure, it’s dark fantasy, focused on exploration and the game doesn’t really hold your hand but that’s about it. For instance, moving is slow. Combat is slooow. Turning around is so slooooow it takes plenty of seconds. Not exactly the Souls experience. But you get used to it. It’s not a big deal. In a way or two, it’s charming even – but at the end of the day, it still feels a bit wrong to play an action game where the action is just a bit faster than complete standstill. Not to mention combat relies on very clumsily gauging timing and distance due to the hit detection that leaves room to… interpretation. Then again, one could also argue that the combat is functional. Think Skyrim. Pretty much the same actually, down to the first person sword-swinging. The kind of combat that is simple and does its job. I prefer it to clumsy messes that I’d best describe as “magnet combat” where you press your attack button and the character automatically moves towards the target even so that your own input is greatly diminished. It’s obviously not Monster Hunter or Souls but luckily spares us from horseshit like The Witcher 3 (Ghosts of Tsushima looks just as bad while we’re at it). So functional it is – both in combat and in gameplay in general. You wander through a dungeon, discover things, beat creatures, get stronger, rinse and repeat. That’s King’s Field. Nothing more and nothing less.

Audio and visuals don’t work wonders. Quite frankly, King’s Field doesn’t look good, sound good or feel particularly good to play but suddenly, as I treaded those samey-looking hallways, still on the first floor, the plants and snakes started coming down in just a single hit, even though, not that long ago, it took me three of them to slaughter these two and I had to carefully tiptoe my way around them. Apparently leveling up and discovering new weapons does that. And that felt cathartic and rewarding. I had invested time and care and effort into this game after a rather relentless start and my investment paid off. Within these hallways, I had somehow become superior over other creatures.

King's Field Moonlight Sword

If this all sounds like I’m describing very basic game features of the likes of “Wow, you level up and get stronger” as if they were something special – that’s because King’s Field makes these feel special. You won’t be given any handholding and not at every turn awaits you a reward as dead ends aren’t of the rare kind but that is precisely what makes accomplishments actually feel like progress in this game. Sure, I might as well play a title that colorfully tells me about how I had just unlocked 3.000.000 awesomeness points for shooting someone but that doesn’t come close to making it safely past a hallway that looked eerily similar to the ones that came before. Less is more apparently. I suspect this is the kind of feeling that people experienced (and I did as well) when the Souls franchise suddenly became a thing and what happens in games suddenly mattered again. When something basic feels very fresh, you know you’ve got the formula nailed down.

Likewise, you actually do feel like an adventurer in King’s Field, one of many, making it through a very dangerous underground and your journey could end anywhere so you best be careful but there’s also the slim chance of you coming out as the hero who conquers them all – after lots and lots of hard work. This is massively supported by incredibly complex dungeon layouts that will make you draw your own maps as I assure you, you would get lost otherwise. The game is a maze for lack of a better description and while you do unlock a map at some point, it’s nowhere near as helpful as your own so enjoy what the game throws at you. It’s a bit reminiscent of rogue-likes, hidden doors included. Sometimes with hidden doors behind hidden doors even. Oh, and locked doors and chests you sometimes will receive the keys for only much later on, occasionally only if you’re capable enough to not miss out on things. This is the thrill of King’s Field. What will await you after the next corner? An enemy? A safe point hopefully? Will you be rewarded for being daring or will your hopes get betrayed? Chances are it’s the latter. Long story short, King’s Field can be rather nerve-wrecking.

King's Field Dungeon Map

It might go without saying but it feels very rewarding to move on from an early level where an arrow takes almost all of your HP to a high one where it does 1/20th damage instead. Or to find a genuinely strong rose sword behind a good amount of hidden walls. Come on, it’s an OP sword that took a lot of time, effort and some luck to find. How cool is that?

Which brings me to the point that, yes, loot actually matters. Finding new armor parts feels like nothing short of a rewarding achievement as they are rare and make quite the difference. This game doesn’t have scaling to keep you within bounds. You can be too weak but also stronger than other games would let you be depending on what you find, ergo how you play. It always feels like you’re exploring some dangerous dungeon that also has some really cool stuff inside it. In King’s Field, your choices matter as there is no progress on pre-determined rails and I appreciate that a lot.

So that’s the appeal of King’s Field. Sounds cool, eh? So, what’s not to like?

Turns out, a lot.

King's Field Knight

To begin with, I don’t think this game is hard enough to make you feel immersed throughout its entire run. Sure, there were a few instances when I was far enough away from the safe point – or, worse, didn’t know where it was – and was running out of healing items but I’ve generally always managed to get out of these situations just fine. Generally speaking, the game gets easier, not harder. There is also not enough of a sense of punishment to raise the stakes unless it’s been quite a while since your last safe so you might lose some beefy progress since hey, resetting the game to square 1 so you have to reload your safe with little consequences is annoying but usually just that. The illusion of this being a hard game stays up for a few hours but it gets progressively easier to the point where walking through hallways no longer feels like a threat but an annoyance. Endgame King’s Field gives you too much money you won’t bother using and your equipment is too powerful. At the end of the day, there’s nothing that prevents you from buying a huge amount of healing items and soundly wandering around through hallways that offer little of a challenge. That’s not fun.

What’s also ridiculously unfun is that the game looks rather repetitive. At rather slow speed, you march down hallways upon hallways of occasionally different colors and the enemy variety, while at least constantly growing with each floor, is rather poor. I also wish the enemy designs had something – anything – to them but no, here’s a plant that tries to bite you. there’s a slightly different one, here’s a golem, also a lizard warrior throwing fire at you because why not. The pinnacle of fiends right there, folks. And while the music can be somewhat atmospheric unless it gets old – there are like only five different tracks and yes, they do get old. And one might argue that they’re kind of just… drab. Adding insult to injury, the framerate is anything but consistent.

King's Field Spiky Steel Balls

But let me elaborate a bit on the areas themselves. King’s Field has ridiculously complex dungeon layouts, no doubt. I’ve said it before: You’ll be required to draw a map. Five maps in total even. But attributing the term “level design” to sprawling hallways? That would be too much to ask for. There are only five floors of which the fourth one looks hideous and the fifth one feels like a brief add-on. Add to that that King’s Field looks dull, ugly, uninteresting. The game does much with the little creativity it offers in regards to its map design but why have so little to begin with? This also largely stems from the fact that you’re always stuck inside that one cemetery… castle… thing… it’s really hard to tell what exactly your surroundings boil down to. Just that they lack variety. That point comes across. Enemy placement I wouldn’t call entirely arbitrary but there’s also little rhyme or reason to it. No synergy (think the Anor Londo archers from Dark Souls or the likes) between demons and places ever comes to exist.

Adding to the long list of complaints, it’s easy to miss out on things. Sometimes too easy even. I have found myself three hidden objects behind the dragon doors but who knows if there was more. One of those involved completing a subquest to transform your family’s heirloom sword into the legendary Moonlight Sword that FROM likes to integrate into their games. Apparently I was supposed to kill the last – and only – boss by using its magic attack… which I didn’t know how to activate. Instead I killed him by spamming my fire spell. Hardly what I’d call a strong moment. And then I got a really short epilogue. What happened to all the NPCs? Who cares. Game’s over. Just like that. Well, that was anti-climactic.

Now one could argue that a disappointing finale is one thing but at least the journey might be worth it, right? There’s just the huge issue that, at some point, you get tired of the game. Drawing a map no longer feels like an adventure but a slog. Getting to a new corridor won’t make you feel overcome by a feeling of success but the realization that you’re starting from 0 again but hey, at least there’s a new track and the walls have a different color and you sure are looking forward to those two new monster designs, right? Cause that is all this amounts to. So while King’s Field is a short journey, it also manages to overstay its welcome. I grew somewhat sick of the game towards the end.

King's Field Final Boss

For what it’s worth, I believe the right foundation is there. There is a good formula King’s Field has going for it. If only there was a good game to be found though. It’s a shame, really. There are captivating fundamentals in here yet the package is just so… utterly lacking. So at the end of the day, what we have here is an okayish game and there is no doubt a lot of history to it, it’s just absolutely not for everyone. If what I’ve written sounds appealing to you and you know a bit of Japanese, by all means, go for it. Just don’t expect anything earth-shattering even if the first few hours might leave a good impression on you.

As such, King’s Field strikes me as “Has potential for the future” more than anything. Unfortunately, that also translates to “Is not fulfilling it at the moment”.

Final Verdict: Mediocre.

1 thought on “King’s Field

  1. Pingback: The 2018 Backlog Summary | Beyond The Mountain Lies A World Of Frills

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